“Smile, you buggers!” : Denis Manners MBE, 1920-2009
Owlswick Morris members are among hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have reason to be grateful to Denis for their introduction to a lifetime’s enjoyment of folk and/or Morris dancing.
Denis, who died on January 2nd, grew up in Harrow, and after returning from military service in WW2 (during which he fought in Africa, was captured and marched round for three months as a POW), became a youth officer in Watford. This was his first opportunity to subvert the local youth culture with traditional dance, and he made the most of it.
The Oxfordshire story started in the late 1950s when Denis moved to Kidlington with his wife Sheila and children Jennie and Nick, later to be joined by an adopted son, Tim. He joined the Kidlington Folk Dance Group at a time when men were very much in the minority at such gatherings. With his interest in song as well as dance (he could produce a spirited rendering of The Village Pump well into old age), he ran a folk club at the Mason’s Arms in Headington.
His initiation into the world of Morris came through a friend in the Woodcraft Folk at Kidlington, and he was taught by Kenworthy Schofield, whose disciplined approach he took to heart and applied with vigour to the somewhat rough material (!!!) awaiting him on his move to Towersey in the early 1960s. Once he’d got the Towersey lads into some sort of shape he took them on their first outing - to the Eight Bells in Long Crendon – where the landlord challenged local boys who were taking the mick to have a go too, resulting in the second side for which Denis was directly responsible.
Apart from these, Towersey spawned another three sides – Owlswick, Cry Havoc (Botley, Oxford) and Lagabag (Suffolk) - all mixed-sex. Unlike the more chauvinistic Morris men of his generation, Denis was all in favour of women dancing Morris, so long as they danced it well. He liked dancers to look as though they were enjoying themselves – hence his best-known catchphrase (one of many): “Smile you buggers!”
Apart from his Morris activities (which also included seven years as Squire of Oxford City), earning a living as an agricultural consultant, and work for the peace movement, Denis was continually busy on the wider folk front. He was a popular caller and instigated social dance sessions before the Towersey Morris practices. “He used to walk us through the dances, guide us by the hand if we got in a muddle, and always encourage us to have a go at something new” remembers Sue Davis (who with her second husband Richard went on to found Lagabag). “I owe a lot of my later lifestyle to Denis and his love for dance.”
Out of these dance sessions Denis developed a demonstration team (Towersey Flying Circus), which included Delly Blane (a founder member of Owlswick). She recalls what the poor man had to cope with: “We were all very young when he took us to bookings and on holidays and he showed amazing patience. He put up with people arriving drunk on the stage, lovestruck girls crying their eyes out in the digs in Ireland, even smoke bombs being planted on one occasion, which almost led to a pier being evacuated and the fire brigade called out! “
Denis instigated popular ceilidhs in the barn of the village’s Three Horseshoes and as well as setting a very high standard of dance, insisted upon courtesy during other artists’ performances, loudly ‘shushing’ anyone who dared to speak while others were singing.
Towersey Festival was his idea and he was able to call upon singers he’d got to know through his village folk events to perform (some, such as John Kirkpatrick and Roy Bailey, now internationally famous). He ran the festival for its first 12 years, originally to fund the refurbishment of the village hall which was in danger of being demolished. The first event took place over half a day and included a procession featuring local residents carrying the tools of their trade. It was a huge success: crowds turned up, the village was packed with cars, and the pub ran out of beer at five o’clock.
Once the village hall was safe, the festival committee turned its collective mind towards raising money to buy a playing field for local children, and to the setting up of the Friends of the Festival, of which Denis was a trustee. (This provides grants to people who want to make a future in the arts.)
In 1998 Denis received the MBE ‘for the promotion of Morris dancing in Oxfordshire’ - one of the more unusual citations in that year’s Honours list. Owlswick members were proud to be at Thame Town Hall to see him honoured and to help him celebrate on this occasion and on his 70th and 80th birthdays. It was wonderful, on his 70th, to have him join Owlswick to dance ‘Dearest Dickie’, and very poignant when, at the celebration of his life on January 23rd 2009, Owlswick danced it again under a new name: ‘Dearest Denis’.
In 2006 Denis had moved with Sheila and Jennie to Nottingham, nearer to the rest of his growing family. We were pleased he was able to get to the 2008 Towersey Festival and help us wind up Owlswick’s year of 25th anniversary activities, though it was evident that Sheila’s death, a couple of months earlier, had left him frailer and much saddened.
Delly sums up his importance to her and husband Chris (Owlswick’s Squire), and by implication to many, many others:
“I suppose without Denis our lives would have been quite different because we would probably never have met! Who knows what our social life would have been like without the dancing? I can’t imagine it would have been so fulfilling and if Denis hadn’t introduced us to it we wouldn’t have considered it – he was a very special man.”